In his job at Canterbury Park, Eric Halstrom sees gamblers beat the odds every day. So when the track’s vice president of racing was approached with the mother of all long shots — trying to lure Triple Crown winner American Pharoah to the Mystic Lake Derby — he didn’t dismiss it out of hand.
Wednesday, the Shakopee track doubled down on its grand idea, announcing it would offer a $2 million purse for the late August race if American Pharoah shows up. And according to Halstrom, owner Ahmed Zayat and trainer Bob Baffert didn’t consider it crazy, either. Halstrom said both men told him Tuesday that they were willing to listen to offers, leading track officials to begin assembling a proposal that will convince Team Pharoah to bypass prestigious races in New York and California in favor of Minnesota.
American Pharoah became the first horse to sweep the Triple Crown in 37 years when he won the Belmont Stakes last Saturday, and Zayat said the colt will continue racing this year. Though Halstrom acknowledged the long odds of enticing him to Shakopee, he added that the track’s horsemen and management fully support a pursuit that could get the racing world talking about Canterbury Park.
“We’re not afraid to try things,” said Halstrom, who hopes to make a detailed offer to American Pharoah’s connections by the end of the week. “The owner and the trainer didn’t shut the door on listening to us, so we’re farther ahead than we probably ever thought we could get.
“This is not a publicity stunt. We’ve taken the steps to make sure we know this can happen if [an offer] is accepted. We understand it’s a long shot, but we’re in the gambling business, so why not take a swing at it?”
The Mystic Lake Derby has a purse of $200,000, which will not increase if American Pharoah does not come. A $2 million purse would equal that of the Kentucky Derby and would be surpassed by only the Breeders’ Cup Classic ($5 million) and Breeders’ Cup Turf ($3 million) in North American thoroughbred racing.
The 1986 St. Paul Derby — held when the track was known as Canterbury Downs — had a $300,000 purse, the highest in track history.
The additional $1.8 million likely would come primarily from funds generated through Canterbury’s agreement with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community.
The 10-year deal, struck in 2012, is infusing $75 million into Canterbury’s purse fund and contributing $8.5 million to joint marketing efforts between the track and Mystic Lake Casino.
Tom Metzen, longtime president of the Minnesota Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, proposed the idea of wooing American Pharoah. The horse owner from St. Paul said he came up with it during a sleepless night Monday, then pitched it to Canterbury Park President and CEO Randy Sampson on Tuesday morning.
“I just thought it was worth giving it a shot,” Metzen said. “Maybe I’m thinking bigger than I should, but what the heck?”
It will require big thinking — and big money — to land the horse. It has been speculated that American Pharoah could start in either the $1.25 million Travers Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 29 or the $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar on Aug. 22. Both races are Grade 1, the highest classification in American racing, and are held at two of the most prestigious and historic tracks in the country.
The ungraded Mystic Lake Derby is run at 1 mile on the turf and is scheduled for Aug. 29. If American Pharoah does commit, the race will be shifted to the main dirt track, extended to 1 ⅛ miles and moved to Aug. 30.
Zayat has said he wants to race the horse through the end of the year to help the sport attract more fans. At a Wednesday media session at Santa Anita Park, Baffert said the ultimate goal for American Pharoah is the Oct. 31 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland. He added that Canterbury’s proposal is not the only one he’s received.
“All kinds of tracks are calling, [saying] ‘Please, could you think of bringing him here?’ ” Baffert told reporters. “Winning a Triple Crown is bringing so much enjoyment to the sport of racing. We’re going to share him.”
Halstrom said Canterbury’s racing surface and stables are considered among the safest and best in the country and would need no upgrades. He estimated American Pharoah could attract 30,000 fans to the race, which would make it necessary to open the infield and other areas.